Friday, September 19, 2008

Frida and Lee: Must a Female Artist Suffer?

When I went to the SF MoMA last week, the Frida Kahlo exhibit occupied the most prominent gallery space (and it was crowded, even at 11 AM on a Thursday!) but I also looked forward to visting the exhibition of Lee Miller's photography. I first became interested in Miller's work after seeing this photograph last summer at the Maryhill Museum of Art--one of the most striking photos I have ever seen.


Miller, though less famous than Frida Kahlo, is also an interesting character: a blonde American beauty who started out as a model, became an acclaimed Surrealist photographer, and then was the only female combat photographer in World War II.

Seeing the Kahlo and Miller exhibits on the same day made me think about the different perspectives they provided on the life of a female artist in the first half of the twentieth century. There's a number of rather striking similarities between these women: both were born in 1907, both produced work associated with the Surrealist movement, both had romantic relationships with famous male artists, both were little-known during their lifetimes and then rediscovered circa 1980. Kahlo died in 1954; Miller lived till 1977 but gave up photography by the mid-1950s.

After seeing the Kahlo exhibit, if I had to pick just one word to describe her art, it would be "suffering." Her famous self-portraits have a mildly grotesque air, what with her emphasis on her unibrow and mustache, but many of her other paintings are less often reproduced because they are so viscerally disturbing.

Indeed, it has been suggested that our present-day adulation of Frida Kahlo and other women who suffered (Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf) leads to thinking that a woman must suffer in order to be a great artist. (See this very interesting article by Stephanie Mencimer.) As a woman with artistic ambitions, I say this had better be just a pernicious myth!

And the work of Lee Miller seems to offer a more hopeful alternative. Here I will have to disagree with Robert Zaller, who wrote that Miller lived with "a wound perhaps no less painful than any of Frida Kahlo's." I'm not saying that Miller had a hunky-dory life: she was sexually abused as a child and suffered post-traumatic stress disorder after photographing World War II. But in contrast to Kahlo, whose physical and psychological pain emanates from every brushstroke, the tragedies of Miller's life seem incidental to her art, not an integral part of it. "Suffering" is not the first word I think of when I consider Miller's work.

As a war photographer, Miller took it upon herself to observe and record the suffering of others. She could have refused to look at the horrors of the concentration camps, or turned back when it got too grisly, but she kept on nonetheless--out of a sense of a higher duty. Whereas Kahlo used the suffering of others as a metaphor for her own pain, constantly reinscribing her own emotional turmoil even when she wasn't painting self-portraits.

Here is Kahlo's A Few Small Nips, ostensibly based on a news story about a man who stabbed his girlfriend--but Kahlo chose this subject because she had just learned that Diego Rivera was cheating on her with her own sister, and felt stabbed in the gut by the news.

And here is Miller's photograph of a young German woman who killed herself upon her country's defeat in the war. This image is also disturbing, but in a quieter way than Kahlo's. It's almost an example of the "banality of evil"--at the same time we register the girl's death, Miller also wants us to notice the button that's hanging loose from the tufted couch, or the position of her pale hands in the light.

And most of Miller's 1930s work doesn't have to do with suffering at all--just studies of light and shadow and how everyday objects can look strange when you view them from a different angle, such as this image of a nude woman bent forward.

Frida Kahlo looked into herself, while Lee Miller looked out at the world. Of course, this might have something to do with the artistic media they chose--Kahlo smearing colored fluids onto a canvas, Miller looking through a machine made of metal and glass. Is painting, by its very nature, more emotional than photography? And, if more emotional, more stereotypically "feminine"?

1 comment:

Lartistadegl animali said...

Mari,
No not all artists (including females) must suffer. But if allowed to work through their suffering, great art can be made. Sometimes it is a necessary survival tool that must be utilized by the artist to just survive what they have lived through and I am speaking of extreme suffering, not just one or two blows…

I am an American artist living in Umbria Italy. My life’s suffering climaxed after complications from open heart surgery with ICU trauma followed by a 3 ministrokes three weeks later from complications. Then on the first night of the 2nd discharge a I suffered a VTAC home alone with my 7 year old sleeping, I was 44 at the time.

The following 18 months recovered life long trauma and suffering through 1 year of Body Memory Flashbacks and 6 months of Night Terrors reliving the deaths I knew of. Suicidal Ideation for this 18 months was followed by a diagnosis of frontal lobe damage from the strokes.

Currently I am creating an exhibition retelling the life stories of 45 artists with suffering. I have only 13 woman included. Women were not allowed to be artist in the very old days; Artemisia Gentlieschi was the first I could find. Then there was Camille Claudel, Ellen Clapsaddle, Alice Neal, Armita Shergil, are a few more and myself, www.francescaowens.com. If you would like to be the blogger as I continue through this journey I would like that.

http://www.saskworld.com/bodymindspirit/edition23/modiglini.html
This story only goes through the first year post open heart, the following 6 months recovered and relived the many violent deaths I came across in my life from being at the Columbine public Library that fateful day to a body being throw at my car of an already dead 23 year old pedestrian. The story has about 20 to 30 different things I some how was involved in. Hence my diagnosis of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or DESNOS. Let me know if you are interested in following this journey with me with you using your words and me using my art. Google all bold words to learn about these…. Ciao Bella, Francesca